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Hugh Hamilton Newell (1878–1941)

by R. M. Mayall

This article was published:

Hugh Hamilton Newell (1878-1941), by unknown photographer

Hugh Hamilton Newell (1878-1941), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 21653

Hugh Hamilton Newell (1878-1941), engineer, was born on 29 April 1878 at Belfast, Ireland, son of John Newell, later a government inspector, and his wife Margaret, née Shaw. Hugh accompanied his parents to the United States of America, where he attended the District School, Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1886 the family moved to Sydney and he completed his schooling at Newtown Superior Public and Fort Street Model schools.

On 5 March 1894 Newell entered the Department of Public Works as an engineering cadet in the roads and bridges branch. After early training at head office he was transferred to field duties in 1897, serving as engineering assistant from 1900 at Campbelltown, Tenterfield and Muswellbrook until 1907, assistant district works officer at Newcastle (1907-12), and supervising engineer at Bathurst (1912-15) and Lismore (1915-17). At Tenterfield Methodist Church he had married Ethel Rose Reid on 30 September 1903.

In 1917 Newell returned to Sydney to take charge of a section of the national and local government works branch, moving in 1924 to Wollongong to succeed his brother-in-law Richard Vowell as district engineer and manager of Port Kembla Electricity Power Supply and Harbour Works. Next year he was an engineering member of the new Main Roads Board, becoming deputy president in January 1928 and briefly president in 1932. Under the Ministry of Transport Act (1932), in March he became commissioner for highways and road transportation. Almost immediately he risked dismissal by refusing to comply with Premier J. T. Lang's instructions of 12 April and 10 May to transfer all cash to the Treasury, and advising him that he lacked the statutory authority to transfer main roads funds to consolidated revenue. Saved by the dismissal of Lang by Governor Sir Philip Game on 13 May, he was commissioner for main roads from December 1932.

A capable and impartial administrator, Newell acquired a wide knowledge of the State and was a guiding influence in pioneering, developing and improving the roads system. He worked to ensure friendly relations between members of the staff, with whom he was very popular; at his instigation the Main Roads Recreation Club was formed early in 1930. Appointed C.B.E. in 1936, he went overseas next year and was greeted on his return to the department with a life-size plaster horse and chickens in the entrance foyer with the notice 'Back to the farm'.

Later Newell went to Darwin to supervise the building of the Northern Territory road from Birdum for the Commonwealth government. The ninety miles (145 km) of completely new road were completed in sixty days. He was active in professional organizations: a foundation member of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, a member (president of the Sydney branch) of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, a member of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, London, and vice-president of the Road Safety Council of New South Wales.

An elder of Mosman Presbyterian Church and clerk of the kirk session of the congregation, Newell was chairman of Scots College Council, a council-member of St Columba's Grammar School, the Ulster Association of New South Wales and the Sydney City Mission, and a member of the Rotary Club of Sydney. He enjoyed gardening, joinery and making models. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he died suddenly at his Mosman home on 15 March 1941 and was cremated. The Newell Highway extending from Tocumwal on the Murray River to Boggabilla on the Queensland border was named in tribute to him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Foott, Dismissal of a Premier (Syd, 1968)
  • J. T. Lang, The Turbulent Years (Syd, 1970)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Feb 1925, 17 Mar 1941
  • Department of Main Roads (New South Wales) archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. M. Mayall, 'Newell, Hugh Hamilton (1878–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Hugh Hamilton Newell (1878-1941), by unknown photographer

Hugh Hamilton Newell (1878-1941), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 21653

Life Summary [details]


29 April, 1878
Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


15 March, 1941 (aged 62)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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